Hi, my name’s Maria and today I’m here to attempt to answer the question of whether “Emergency Contact” by Mary H.K. Choi is worth the hype or not.
To be fair, that is a completely subjective question on every possible level.
But, you’know, maybe the things that make me tick are the same things that make you tick.
So really, we’re all just out here doing our best.
“Emergency Contact” is a YA contemporary story about a Korean-American teenager named Penny, who is starting her first year of college in Austin, Texas.
She’s extremely introverted and anti-social. She’s studying to become a writer, but she doesn’t really know her way around people, and her roommates are trying to force her to deal with that.
The other POV character is Sam, who lives below the poverty line ever since his alcoholic mother kicked him out of their mobile home and after he ran into alcohol issues himself with his ex.
And now he works in and lives above this kitschy little off-campus coffee shop.
As you might have guessed, Sam and Penny run into each other at the coffee shop. It’s extremely awkward, and they only meet each other again when Sam finds himself having a panic attack in public.
After that, Penny puts her number in his phone so that he can call her if he ever finds himself alone and in trouble again, and from there an unexpectedly intimate text friendship blossoms.
First off, to back to that dynamic of text messaging, I thought that element was relatively successful, because what Sam and Penny have is so easy and honest.
For whatever reason, they’re able to let their guards down when they’re on their phones, and there’s no rhyme or reason to their discussions, either.
They’re kind of just throwing random thoughts and questions into the void and seeing what sticks, and luckily between them there’s no judgment.
I think that element is what draws a lot of people to this story specifically, and I think it’s something many of us entering that first phase of adulthood can relate to, because we maintain and build a lot of our important relationships through our phones.
And the story does a fairly good job of exploring how when you maintain these virtual relationships, you have to strike a balance between the urge to carefully cultivate yourself and trying to leave space to be vulnerable and expose your truth.
Another detail I enjoyed was how Penny and Sam are both unironically pursuing the arts.
It’s really cool to see an Asian-American character, especially, unabashedly chasing her dream of becoming a writer.
And what’s more, she’s not facing any push-back, her mother is in full support of her goals, and for the level she’s at, she is finding success. It’s a non-issue in her life.
Sam is also an artist. He’s an aspiring film maker, with an interest in documentaries.
And even though he doesn’t have the privileges or the access to resources that a lot of other students do, he’s still out there trying to show the world the way it is.
And neither of these characters are stressing about whether they’ll have successful careers.
They’re just trying to learn as much as they can about their craft.
On a related note, I also really enjoyed the parallels drawn between Penny’s developing short story and her own life.
It’s really fascinating and realistic to see the direct connection Penny’s experiences have with her writing process.
Because sometimes when you have a personal breakthrough, you have a breakthrough on the page.
Sometimes you channel your conflict into the energy of the draft.
And sometimes you’re going about your day-to-day life and you figure out that thing that’s been blocking you, and that switch flips just like that.
And in fact, sometimes I was maybe more invested in the drafts of her story than I was in her actual life.
That’s probably it as far as positives.
Now we get into the not-so-cute stuff.
The first huge red flag I ran into with this book, within a few pages, was an extremely alarming amount of girl-on-girl hate.
Honestly, I’m OVER this idea that young women, especially, inherently hate each other in order to validate themselves or to find value in their work or their existence.
It’s a MYTH that we keep feeding younger generations. And not only do you have to ask yourself who does this myth benefit, but at some point, it has to stop.
And pretty much everyone in this story is female, besides Sam, (who is the only non-feminine person) and every girl is presented as ditzy, vapid, fake, irresponsible, not to be trusted.
With the obvious exception of Penny, of course.
And on top of that, both and Penny and Sam are cynical and judgmental, to the extreme, and a big part of their dynamic is this idea that no one understands them.
They’re so different from everyone else.
And yet, neither of them project any kind of empathy. Neither of them can see people, even cursory people, as complex beings, especially when they discuss other girls.
But if your basic-ass brand of humor comes at the expense other people, I have no interest.
Because I could see that sometimes the narration was going for this pithy, darkly sarcastic tone, but at what cost?
Like these characters say randomly borderline offensive, if not full-on offensive, stuff.
Once Penny said that Australians aren’t really that interesting, because they’re just “off-brand Brits.”
And the first time she met Sam, she noticed that his hands were small, and she honest-to-God figured that meant he was gay.
And their dynamic could be really strange or unhealthy sometimes.
Like I guess Sam is in his 20’s and Penny’s an older teenager, so there’s a few times where Sam actually says they can never really be friends because Penny “doesn’t count as a person yet.”
Maybe she’ll count when she’s twenty-five!
And Penny has this inferiority complex when it comes to Sam because he’s so hot and wounded and cool.
And why would he ever descend from the heavens to shoot her a text, when she’s so clearly “a nobody”???
At one point she says that if Sam is talking to her, he’s “slumming it,” because how could she, “a lowly tree frog” take up so much of his time?
Again…I’m over it.
It’s just more nonsense that we need to banish in 2018, especially when it comes to stories that we brand as “romances.”
To get beneath that, I guess what I’m really saying is that I’m done with jerks, and I’m done with stories that glorify, celebrate, or romanticize jerks.
And it’s not that every character has to be a beacon of perfection. It’s not that protagonists have to be likeable or palatable, or that they have to be nice about everyone and everything they come across.
But if you just as an ass for the sake of being an ass and there’s no real confrontation of your flaws, there’s just no point.
Another really big thing that I haven’t really seen anyone mention is the fact that Penny was assaulted in high school. And it’s framed as a plot twist and this big moment of character development, which is fairly problematic.
The way this event effects her is so deeply buried that it’s never hinted at, and the way she talks about it is so detached. She refers to it as “awkward” and “so embarrassing.”
It’s just not written with the proper respect.
I mean, if you have this character who’s pursuing a new romantic relationship, it would most likely bring up her relationship with her body, whether or not this trauma effected the way she interacts with young men.
But none of that ever comes up.
And then it’s just thrown into this random conversation where Penny and Sam are getting to know each other better.
It’s like, “Oh, hey Sam, I’m not just this awkward, judgmental person.”
“There’s so more to me. I was drum roll assaulted.”
Yeah, like I said not framed well and not a great moment.
Which leads into my last point, about how this book tries to come off as a quirky romance, takes on all this serious subject matter, and then does NONE of it justice.
Among many things, this book tries to deal with issues of alcoholism, poverty, broken families, homelessness, anxiety and panic attacks, teenage pregnancy, sexual assault, toxic parent-child relationships, and all of it is just half-baked, at best.
That’s what really gets to me, I think, the fact the characters address these things so flippantly, and with so much nonchalance, and they never really get beneath any of these issues before they’re dropped and tossed away.
Because it would be cool to have a cute romance that also addresses realistic topics and shows how these characters are at a point in their lives where they’re ready to change their narrative.
But instead it’s another classic case of a story that wants to take a stab at everything and ultimately accomplishes nothing by doing so.
To go back to the question of whether or not this book is worth the hype, again I can only speak for myself. And for me, it was not.
The insides of this book, in my opinion, don’t match what’s presented on the surface.
So there you have it, those are my thoughts on “Emergency Contact.”
Those are things I wish I’d known going into it.
So if you’ve read this one yourself or if you plan to read it in the future, feel free to let me know what you think in the comments.
But that’s everything I had for this book review today. Thank you so much for reading this post.
I really hope that you enjoyed it, and I will catch YOU on the flip-side of the page.